Even though Macedonia has decriminalised the possession of drugs for personal use, there remain many anomalies in the related regulations. Read our guest author's insights on what has to be done to make the country's laws serve the best interests of public health.
The First National Conference on Drug Policy took place at the end of September last year, organised by the HOPS-Healthy Options Project in Skopje, with the aim of opening up the debate on current trends in European drug policy, as well as reflecting the problems in Macedonia regarding judicial practices and other issues related to drugs. Fifty participants from Macedonia and other countries, among them the national drug coordinator from the Czech Republic, Jindrich Voboril, discussed whether repressive drug policies produce results, or whether the decriminalisation of drugs constitutes more effective policy. The discussion focussed especially on experience in Macedonia, Czech Republic, Russia and Slovenia. The main conclusion of the Conference was that repressive policies are inhumane, do not have a major influence on the prevalence of drug use, and cannot be expected to produce beneficial results in the foreseen future.
Drug law, practice, and procedures
In Macedonia, possession of drugs for personal use is not a crime, and drug use is considered a misdemeanour against public order and is penalised with fines. On the other hand, production, sale, possession for sale, and enabling the use of drugs are all considered to be criminal offences. In practice, however, possession is most often treated within the framework of the Criminal Code.
Most drug-related cases in the courts are based on article 215 "The unauthorised production and release for trade of narcotic drugs and other psychotropic substances and precursors". From the enactment of the Criminal Code in 1996, to date, this provision was only applied in September 2009, when a new paragraph was added, prescribing a less severe penalty in the case of offences involving small quantities of drugs. The Criminal Code is not specific about the distinction between small and large quantities, which is why the Public Prosecutor’s office adopted internal guidelines which lists the cut-off levels for different types of drugs. Thus, according to the Public Prosecutor’s office, a lesser quantity is considered to be 5 grams of marijuana, or 2 grams of heroin or cocaine.
Analysis of the legal framework surrounding drug-related offences opens up issues which need to be studied in order to ensure the proper application of existing provisions, and the protection of the rule of law. The courts tend to ignore the description of the offence in the the Criminal Code, as well as the Supreme Court decision that drug possession for personal use is not a criminal offence – which creates a need to clarify the position, in order to ensure appropriate application of the provision which makes the intent to sell punishable. Furthermore, there are clear signs of the courts' tendency to impose lower sentences for the possession of marijuana, as opposed to heroin or cocaine – which suggests a need to distinguish between substances on the basis of their harmfulness. Such legal practice could be a good foundation for applying milder criteria for punishments in cases of marijuana possession, as compared to other psychotropic substances.
Watch the video on the First National Conference on Drug Policy
Conclusions from the First National Conference on Drug policies
1. Repressive drug policies do not produce positive results, or reduce drug use. For example, in Russia, with a repressive policy, there are significant problems in terms of high incidence and prevalence of HIV, especially among people who inject drugs, a low number of people on opiate substitution therapy, serious human rights violations, great burdens on the healthcare, social care, and legal systems, etc.
2. Macedonia's national drug strategy needs to be properly resourced, with the underlying documents opened to public debate.
3. There is inconsistency between the description of the Criminal Code’s article 215 and 216 and the cases where judges implement – and pass sentence – based on those articles.
4. There is a need for appropriate distinctions to be made in the law, so that drug-use is treated as a misdemeanour, and enabling the use of drugs is treated as a felony.
5. There is a need to formalise articles 215, 216, and 217, from chapter 21 of the Criminal Code, in order to define 'small' amounts of drugs, and make the proper distinction between misdemeanours and felonies. The precise provisions should clearly distinguish between people who possess and produce drugs for sale, and people who possess and produce drugs for personal use. The description of these articles needs to be simplified and divided into separate paragraphs.
6. There is a need to amend the wording of the laws relating to the regulation of drugs, in order to incorporate internationally accepted terminology.
7. Alternatives to prison sentences, for drug-related offences, should be used more frequently.
8. There is a need to introduce a system for the analysis and evaluation of the laws, regulations and their implementation.
9. Although in some cities there has been an improvement in police practice, and the attitude of the police towards people who use drugs, at a national level those changes are insufficient, and there is a need for practices to change.
10.National drug policy needs to be based on pragmatism and respect for human rights. To achieve this, we need to build a consensus among stakeholders, that drug use is a matter of public health and social policy.
11.All organisations and institutions working in the drugs field should work actively against the stigma and discrimination which target people who use drugs.
12.These changes need to lead us towards pragmatic policies aiming at protecting public health.